2015 Eastern Conference Playoff Impressions (First Round, Game 1)

The NBA Playoffs started. We’ve had 8 games. It’s way too early in each series to decide anything….but here are some impressions:

(1) Atlanta v (8) Brooklyn

Is there anyone outside of the borough of Brooklyn and the sad state of New Jersey that actually wants this Nets team to win? I guess Cavs, Bulls, Raptors and Wizards fans temporarily want Brooklyn to beat Atlanta. The Hawks are the only underdog 60-win team in playoff history. Not underdogs in this series, but not favored to win the East. Health remains key. Jeff Teague had a brutal game 1. Paul Millsap didn’t look quite right. Al Horford’s x-rays were negative. The Hawks would do well to win this in 4 and rest as TOR-WAS goes 6 or 7. Kyle Korver: 5 of 11 from deep.

(4) Toronto v (5) Washington

This series has as much to do with Kyle Lowry’s back and Nene’s knees as anything else. Paul Pierce got himself revved up with his own comments. Makes you wonder if that’s how it works when Pierce is with his lady. “Do you really want it? Are you sure you want it? You don’t seem like you want it? Should I go take the kids to the park instead?” Kyle Lowry needs a good deep-tissue massage and some shiatsu.

(3) Chicago v (6) Milwaukee

Derrick Rose is in attack mode and it has to be refreshing for Bulls fans. Anyone who is still complaining about not getting Russell Westbrook in the playoffs, just watch the Bulls-Bucks series. Before Westbrook’s furious rampaging to the hoop, it was Rose making the impossible mid-air contortions. The Bucks will be bounced quickly unless Jason Kidd decides to come out of retirement and hits about 6 corner threes per game. Michael Carter-Williams has a problem shooting.

(2) Cleveland v (7) Boston

After one quarter, the Celtics led Cleveland 31-27. With 9:24 remaining in the first half, Boston was somehow ahead 38-31. Then the Cavs got loose and started doing what they’ve been doing for the last two months. Hitting wide-open three-pointers, and letting Kyrie Irving loose.  LeBron’s penetration led to one triple each from J.R. Smith, Irving and the Artist Formerly Known As Kevin Love (AFKAKL). Kyrie finished the half with two ridiculous off-the-bounce stop-me-if-you-can three-pointers. Suddenly the Cavs finish the half up 62-54.

“Nobody said it was easy,” was the theme song to this loss for the Celtics.

Isaiah Thomas had a rough first half, but finished with a solid all-around game (22 pts, 10 ast, 5 reb and 5 turnovers). Kelly Olynyk was a spark off the bench early (12 pts on 7 shots and 2 blocks). Surprisingly, Brandon Bass was given the majority of the time on LeBron early, with Crowder playing more in semi-garbage time once the Celtics were down 15. At some point, Gigi Datome will make an appearance and shoot lots of threes. Stevens is probably saving him for Game 3 and the rabid home crowd.

All in all, the Celtics can take some solace in the fact that this was not a complete and utter devastation in Game 1. A few problems that aren’t going away for Boston: LeBron and Kyrie can get anywhere they want on the court and the Celtics have no rim protection. Cleveland offensive rebounding (15) vs Boston defensive rebounding (27) was a disaster. Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are large and determined. Celtics need Crowder and anyone else willing to fend off the Cleveland bigs. The problem, Cleveland spreads the floor so well, that the Celtics aren’t going to succeed on the rebounding front unless they can summon 2008 Kevin Garnett or 2010 Kendrick Perkins. Oh well. At least they got an invitation to the big dance.

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2015 Eastern Conference Playoff Primer

Now that the NBA’s regular season has come to a close, let’s rest our eyes on the East’s playoff teams (while looking at a screen with words on it):

1st seed: Atlanta Hawks (60-22)

The Hawks have been rightfully praised all year for their ball movement and exquisite spacing. I probably read two pieces each week in January and February about one Hawk or another. Kyle Korver-love was overflowing. Al Horford appreciation was everywhere. Mike Budenholzer was given the credit he deserves for instilling an egalitarian, share-the-wealth culture, in which assistants work diligently on player development. Everyone contributes and communicates on defense. However, the questions about the Hawks playoff potential never quite stopped. Korver missed time with a broken nose and the Hawks spacing was more like a wobbly tire than a perfect circle. Paul Millsap’s recent shoulder scare raised another red flag. The Hawks are remarkable for their unity and selflessness, but where will they go in crunch time against a gritty defense? They may never face a gritty defense in the East playoffs. Even if Indiana sneaks into the 8th spot, they have 15 minutes per game from Paul George and have no continuity at the moment.

Other than Milwaukee, the East is full of offensive-based playoff teams.

2nd seed: Cleveland Cavs (53-29)

You may have heard about this team. They play all their games on national television because of a certain player whose first name begins with an “L” and whose last name begins with a “J.” No, Larry Johnson, aka, “Grand-mama” has not come out of retirement. No, Luke Jackson has not been on the Cavs since 2006 (he’s currently on the Idaho Stampede for those NBDL obsessives). Anyway, the Cavs have been lethal since they traded for actual role players (Mozgov doing his best Asik impression, Shumpert defending the wings, and J.R. Smith on his best behavior). Smith is a genuine wild-card, as always. He set an NBA record for most field-goal attempts without attempting a two-point shot (8 of 17, all from deep), in a hard-fought win over Chicago on April 5th. Cleveland-Chicago has the makings of an intriguing second round match-up.

In certain match-ups, watch for Tristan Thompson to grab Kevin Love’s minutes because of his defensive prowess. Love can’t seem to shake the idea that he’s best suited to camp out in the corner on this team. Taking the ball out of the hands of that certain man named whose name begins with “L” and his uniquely skilled (handles!) backcourt mate Kyrie Irving is not happening.

3rd seed: Chicago Bulls (50-32)

Even the sleeping giants in Chicago are more of an offensive force (Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic) than they used to be, while their defense has suffered with Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson missing time and last year’s DPOY Joakim Noah looking like he needs a new knee or one of those experimental German blood spinning treatments. The Bulls have faced too many injuries to bother documenting this season. Despite all the depth in the world, the Bulls have been without Rose for huge stretches, Jimmy Butler for most of March, Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy for months, and Joakim Noah can’t move the way he used to, post-knee surgery. The Bulls still have enormous potential, with Gasol, Butler, Rose, and Mirotic providing all kinds of offensive possibilities, but roles are not certain and Thibs is ready to bolt for New Orleans after dealing with ongoing front office drama.

4th seed: Toronto Raptors (49-33)

If you watched last year’s playoffs, you had to feel for Kyle Lowry and the fun-loving bunch north of the border. The scenes outside the Air Canada Centre (don’t forget to move that “r” in Canadian spelling) were ecstatic as happy-go-lucky Ontarians jumped with glee for their Raptors. The team came together and home court still mattered. However, one Paul Pierce deflection of a Lowry floater pushed the Nets into the 2nd round.

This year, Toronto sprinted out to a 24-8 start, tops in the East. The caveat: they had yet to face the league’s best teams, they weren’t forced to play much defense yet, and Kyle Lowry was healthy. GM Masai Ujiri wishes the playoffs would’ve started on January 1st. Instead, his team finished 25-25 over their final 50 games.

In a fitting twist of fate, the Raptors will face Pierce again this April, only this time Pierce is a Washington Wizard. The Raptors started off The who played much of the last month without their heart-and-soul point guard Kyle Lowry (back) since March 18th. Lowry returned on April 10 against Orlando. In the two games since, he’s shot 7 of 26 from the field and 1 of 13 from deep. How quickly can he knock off the rust? Will James Johnson’s new Rodman-style look alter game plans?

5th seed: Washington Wizards (46-36)

The John Wall-led Wizards have struggled through losing streaks of three and four games, but seemed to be righting the ship defensively in the last month. Like Wall’s offensive game, the Wizards are brilliant at times, but come with flaws (Wall’s range is impacted by the lack of Trevor Ariza’s three-point shooting). The Wizards expected much more than a two-win improvement on last year’s 44-38 season, but injuries and a lack of depth punished the team, not to mention old legs that can’t keep up with Wall.

The Wizards will depend on the crusty legs of Nene and Paul Pierce heavily in the playoffs. Pierce recently aired his dirty laundry to Jackie MacMullan. Is he a wise motivator or Grumpy old man? We shall see what happens.

Bradley Beal’s absence through the team out of sync for stretches. Few believe the Wizards can get past the second round. The health of Nene and the three-point shooting of Pierce may go a long way in determining if they can get out of the first.

6th seed: Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)

The young Bucks are full of piss and vinegar and long-armed defenders who never stop moving. Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jared Dudley, John Henson, and newly-arrived Michael Carter-Williams provide the blueprint for modern defense. Switching and communicating is more important than ever. Having Inspector Gadget arms makes the whole process easier. The Bucks are a great story and easy to root for. Unfortunately, since they traded Brandon Knight to Phoenix for MCW, their lack of shooting has been even more noticeable. Frankly, they can’t score. They won’t score in the playoffs. I’d say 85 points if Middleton and Dudley are hitting their shots from deep.

Imagine what this team might look like with Larry Sanders anchoring the center spot? Yikes. Jabari Parker has been out since December (late November?) with a torn ACL. Hopefully, he makes his mark next year.

7th seed: Boston Celtics (40-42)

Goodness gracious, typing that record feels absurd today, even if I tweeted that back on October 29th. I’m sure if I put any small wager on it, things would’ve turned out differently. This was a 20-33 team, floating tepidly along until the roster churn finally stopped, and they found themselves with Isaiah at the point, and some decent shooting (Jerebko and occasionally Bradley or Olynyk) nearby. The team started playing feisty defense and stopped turning the ball over, thanks in large part to Evan Turner’s surprisingly steady hand. They weathered the storm when Thomas went down with a back injury. Fast-forward a few weeks, and with two games left, they’ve won six of their last seven. They’ve had the leprechaun back on their side, facing a resting Cavs team (Kyrie missed both, LeBron played one half out of the two games). As the final week of the season begins, Brad Stevens’ club sits with a 98.3% chance of making the playoffs.

Many outside observers wondered why the team wanted to make a playoff push. The question: would you rather have a sliver of a chance at a top 3 pick or continue an attempt at restoring a culture of winning among your very young team? In the Eastern Conference, a team on the rise can rise rapidly (Washington Wizards last year). All teams won’t put their fans through what Sam Hinkie has done to his Sixers faithful (how faithful can they be at this point?) and expect long-term success. Rebuilding is always an experiment, so why not rebuild on the fly when you’ve already got an abundance of youth on the roster?

Boston matches up better with Atlanta (who may be dealing with a dinged-up Millsap) than they do with the mighty offensive juggernaut that is the Cleveland Cavs. The Cavs will likely finish off Boston within six games, if I’m allowed green-tinted optimism I’ll say six instead of five. The reductive folks with no rooting interest in Boston will say that winning one or two playoff games is useless in the big picture, but what they fail to recognize is the importance of playing games 65 through 82 on the regular season schedule as well. By beating out the meager Hornets, the deflating Nets (sans Pierce and Garnett), and the Bosh-less Heat, the Celtics youth brigade has undoubtedly gained confidence and experience. One or two potential playoff wins in a series will be the icing on the development cake. I guess if the Cavaliers sweep the Celtics, blowing them out several times that might not taste like some delicious icing, but I’m betting the series won’t end in disaster for Brad Stevens’ club.

8th seed: Brooklyn Nets (38-44)

I don’t have anything to say about the Nets except they spoiled a much more intriguing storyline: Pacers face Hawks in first round rematch of last year’s series. Paul George gave the Pacers a lift and they started winning games and feeling inspired. But Brooklyn got healthy, Brook Lopez remembered he will be a free agent and started dominating, and Deron Williams found some combination of health and inspiration. Now the Nets face Atlanta. I can’t wait for the Hawks to sweep these spoil-sport Nets.

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Quick and Dirty Takes on the First Round:

Darko Index Predicts

(1) Atlanta over (8) Brooklyn in 5 games.

(4) Toronto over (5) Washington in 7 games.

(3) Chicago over (6) Milwaukee in 5 games.

(2) Cleveland over (7) Boston in 6 games.

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Enjoy! The Playoffs Can’t Stop and Won’t Stop. Just like those Pesky Celtics.

Here’s a link to the playoff schedule:

http://www.si.com/nba/2015/nba-playoffs-bracket-schedule-results-tv-times-location

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Writing on Splice Today: Rising Celtics, MVP Debates, and Red Sox Opening Day

Openings and links to recent writing I’ve done for Splice Today:

Green Playoff Dreams Become Reality

As NBA teams play their last of the 82-game season, the Western Conference standings are a mess. Every team other the Golden State Warriors is floating in a blender, which pulses nightly. The healthiest and the hottest teams rise to the top. Welcome to the 2nd seed, San Antonio Spurs. Welcome to the 5th seed, Memphis Grizzlies. The playoff match-ups refuse to be determined. Let’s switch over to the Eastern Conference, where things might not be as glamorous, but they make a bit more sense.

The Boston Celtics (40-42) have enjoyed themselves since the All-Star Break (20-11; 20-9 in last 29 games). Coach Brad Stevens has the team buying in to the wise Buddhist (and sporting) philosophy to stay in the present moment, rather than get ahead of themselves and overanalyze their success. The hunger this group plays with is palpable. Refreshing to see a collection of undervalued players pull together in only a few weeks. As GM Danny Ainge explained on Tuesday night’s broadcast, the new-look team has barely had practice time together since the All-Star break, and the cohesion is remarkable. The flurry of mid-season trades is in the rearview, and the Celtics have cemented their collective identity. Start with guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. Toss in the constant-motion and physicality of Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. Finish it with the mighty-might offensive force of Isaiah Thomas (no relation to the Pistons legend), and you get a team that refuses to be denied.

To continue, hop here: http://splicetoday.com/sports/green-playoff-dreams-become-reality

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How MVP Debates Miss the Bigger Picture

I’m not sure when it happened exactly, maybe 10 years ago, but ESPN, Yahoo and the rest of the corporate sports media industry, who have always enjoyed quoting athletes saying stupid things, began taking it to the next level, constantly badgering athletes to self-promote and sound like egomaniacal assholes (some don’t need much help), in order for the media cycle to provide easy targets for Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd the following day. Amazingly, the hot air has yet to melt ESPN down into the black hole of Bristol, Connecticut.

Growing up in Boston, I understand the cultural phenomenon of sports talk radio and what a “hot take” really is. It’s an easy and provocative way of dumbing-down simple-minded people who see the world in black-and-white. Our political campaigns are filled with gossip-filled plot twists and endless array of talking heads reinforcing the sludge to the masses. Everything is newsworthy in this age. I feel like Andy Rooney, hermetically complaining in my corner.

The Internet avalanche of clickbait now brings these non-stories to our eyes wherever we wander online. The “build your brand” bullshit and the endless self-promotion that has infiltrated the sports world is here to stay, whether we like it or not. Filtering it out becomes paramount for the semi-enlightened sports fan who wants to avoid the swamp of ego-driven despair that comes with enjoying a game, a team or a particular player.

“James Harden claims he’s the NBA’s MVP”

That’s the headline, designed to make you click. As Chris Beck eloquently wrote here, controversy reigns in today’s competitive media climate. Truth be damned, not truth be told. So much garbage designed to provoke reactions, rather than examine with a critical lens. Very few media outlets worry about correcting their false claims. Everyone moves on in an instant.

To continue, hop here: http://splicetoday.com/sports/how-mvp-debates-miss-the-bigger-picture

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The Glory of Boston’s Opening Day

Opening Day is a holiday. More sacred than Easter or Passover or any other spring day for me. This isn’t about the tropes of fresh starts and green grass and the end of winter, though those are important aspects of Opening Day as well. This is about the lovely impossibility of percentages. One divided by 162.

1/162 = 0.00617.

The first regular season game of the longest season in professional sports counts for roughly 0.62 percent of the season. But let’s be honest: All but the most literal-minded, detached fan does not see Opening Day that way. With all the anticipation of Game #1 comes all of the exaggerated impact that Game #1 has. As is the case with the majority of baseball games, strange things happened.

On Monday, 28 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams opened their seasons; the Cubs and Cardinals debuted on Sunday night. Of those 14 games, four ended in blowouts. Boston (8-0), Colorado (10-0), Kansas City (10-1), and Oakland (8-0) all began their seasons in glorious style, piling up runs as if they will last forever. Never mind that Kansas City and Oakland may not score more than seven runs in a game for the rest of April. For now, their bats are bright-eyed and bountiful, and the lineup takes on a jovial vibe. Coming into Monday, Red Sox and Rockies fans knew high-scoring games were likely occurrences. I suppose it’s ingrained in those that have ever attended a game at Coors Field to expect a steady flow of hits and runs. Red Sox fans have certainly come to expect doubles off the Monster and “crooked numbers” on the scoreboard, but five home runs on Opening Day? Four solo shots off Cole Hamels? This was only the second time in his career he’s allowed four in a game.

To continue, hop here: http://splicetoday.com/sports/the-glory-of-boston-s-opening-day

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Questions, Statements and Proclamations for the 2015 MLB Season: American League

Baseball is not entirely unpredictable, but there is a website named for its unpredictability. How many “experts” picked Kansas City to rampage through the post-season last October? How many believed that Mike Moustakas (52 HRs in 1993 regular season plate appearances) would hit five October round-trippers in his 55 October appearances in the batter’s box? Before last October’s AL Wild Card game, how many fans had ever heard of pinch-running maestro Terrance Gore (two plate appearances, five stolen bases last September)?

This is why we love baseball (or why Orioles fans hate baseball). Because the game refuses to allow us to know how it will play out every year, with broken-bat hits and insane running catches in the outfield (Lorenzo Cain). Because of Tommy John and his infamous elbow operation. Injuries that result from dropping boxes on feet (Chris Sale). Every spring training day that passes, more baseball fans are learning more about anatomy and physiology. Fantasy baseball rosters are filled with tiny red-crosses. Let’s get down to it and ask some hypothetical questions.

Boston Red Sox:

  1. I’d like to make a substantial wager that Mookie Betts will be an All-Star within three years. Yes, I’d like to bet on Betts.
  2. How many weeks until we see lefty prospect Eduardo Rodriguez replace fifth starter Joe Kelly (biceps injury and up-and-down career) in the starting rotation?
  3. With all of the defensive shifts that take place in the majors now, why can’t the Red Sox just play their four outfielders, as they do in softball?
  4. Who needs a first baseman? Pedroia can scamper over there on infield hits.

http://splicetoday.com/sports/questions-statements-and-proclamations-for-the-2015-mlb-season

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As always, thanks for reading and sharing.

Onward to the Playoffs!

Go Celtics. Go Warriors.

Jonah

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